Design by Mansi Gupta

A good friend recently sent me the following message:

Hello Fabian!

As you might have seen, I just launched a Facebook group for freelancers […]. Any key tip in how to launch that? I know you have a whole canvas but it might bit a bit too ambitious for it now.

I always struggle with such questions, because they are complex and a thoughtful answer would deserve some time and space (and yes, the Community Canvas would probably be my best answer at this point, but quite an extensive one…). I wanted to send a quick reply, but was about to log off from my computer and felt in a hurry. So I thought if I had any easily summarized, bite-sized thoughts to share. Here is what came out:

Make sure to manage expectations carefully.

Only recently have I started paying more attention to expectations. And the more I think about them, the more I see them as one of the key design principles for nurturing a meaningful community.

Some observations about the role of expectations in communities and why they matter

1 — Most people show up in a group how they are expected to show up.

Most humans want to fit in and they are willing to model their behavior along the groups norms (-> psychological conformity).

2 — Most communities have aspirations for their members to behave differently within their group than in everyday life.

At the core of these expectations are often a set of values and commitments. It is this quality to encourage an aspirational lifestyle that makes communities magical.

Also, many communities define success by how actively their members are engaging within the community.

3 — Many community builders are afraid of explicitly asking for a behavior change and for a bigger commitment.

They worry that they are asking for too much, that they need to build trust with their members first. But changing a group’s DNA later on is very difficult (or impossible).

4 — Many communities suck at communicating their DNA; their rules, guidelines, expectations, value proposition.

Sometimes you’ll find the community’s key beliefs somewhere on their website. Sometimes it’s only implicitly shared among members. I come across many communities where it is impossible for me as a member to figure out what the community is about and what the best way for me is to show up in a meaningful way. Many communities only communicate the what (experiences), but not the why and how (beliefs and practices).

Other groups only communicate these beliefs once, at the very beginning of a member’s experience. However, humans don’t read a text once and then start acting upon the principles described in it. Only when they see the principles again and again, and only when they seem them turned into action, they take them seriously and start modeling their own behavior accordingly.

5 — Unless specified, people come into communities with unclear and sometimes unrealistic expectations.

I have been observing some patterns when people show up as fresh members to a new community without any guidance:

  • Some people have been disappointed by communities in the past and they assume the worst: they assume low activity, low trust, low engagements. These people are looking for signals from the group about the group’s norms and actions that back them up.
  • Some people come in with a romanticized view of communities and too high expectations: They expect everyone to be friendly to them, they expect to find a highly curated group, they expect to find strong daily activity, they expect people to respond to their questions immediately and in meaningful ways, they expect others to be interested in lengthy and repeated description of their own activities.

6 — If expectations aren’t explicitly set, some people will try to extract as much short-term personal value out of the group as possible.

If there are no norms defined by the group, people will try to find out what the group stands for through trial and error. And some members will try to extract as much personal value out of the group as possible until someone stops them. For example, I often see new members in groups with unclear expectations trying to promote their own initiatives. That behavior is toxic, as it drives a transactional behavior and can easily take the group down a negative spiral (there is zero value left in a group where everyone simply promotes things). So while it’s bad for the group, the individual still has an incentive to try and see if unsocial behavior will be accepted. Part of this has to do with setting expectations, and part with policing them. But you can only police rules if you have some.

7 — The deeper the engagement levels are within the community, the more important it becomes to manage expectations.

Simply exchanging messages in a Facebook group is pretty low risk, but what if you work together, earn money together, invest together, live together? Much more will be at stake.

8 — The more volunteers do for the community, the more it matters to clarify expectations about give and get

Many communities thrive thanks to the countless hours of work done by volunteers. But few communities have clearly defined what the expected duties and rights are that come with each role, therefore often leading to misunderstandings and frustrations on both side.

All of these view points brought me to the following conclusions

  1. As a community designer I can actively shape members’ behavior inside the group. The more the groups values differ from the cultural norm and the higher the commitment is that I’m expecting from members, the better I need to manage everyone’s expectations.
  2. Managing expectations means to communicate as explicitly, as early and as repeatedly as possible what is expected from a member and what a member can expect from the group.

In my next post I will think about some tangible strategies how to actively manage expectations — please let me know what you think about managing expectations in the meantime, I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts!

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